Thanksgiving is one of those holidays where people commonly (and wonderfully) open up their homes to people beyond their family. Gathered around the table are human beings who may be bringing emotional side dishes to the day. Some Thanksgiving guests are blurters and before we cross the threshold of your beautiful home, we’ve told you everything that’s going on in our lives: the good and the horrible.
The thing is: We ALL have stuff going on. Everyone has a story. But not all Thanksgiving guests will be so open. So how do you help your guests survive the day? How do you create a meal that is as free from emotional land-mines as possible? And if you are going through a hard time, how can you tip off your host so they can make it easier for you? Trust me, they absolutely want things to be easier for you.
You can’t please everyone, but being open to other people’s situations will go a long way. Thanksgiving is about coming together and having great conversations. Knowing you have provided or helped create a safe space is almost as good as my recipe for chocolate pecan pie.
#1: A guest has recently had a miscarriage or is dealing with infertility
I talked to my friend Kym, who has written for years about infertility and surrogacy. I wanted to know what she would have appreciated from a host on Thanksgiving while she was dealing with infertility.
- Privately show guests a safe space for any moments they need to escape.
- Tell your guests in advance they don’t need permission to leave early. Kym says, “Often as company, we feel obligated to stay lest we feel like we are being rude by not sticking around. Give your company an out ahead of time and hopefully that will relieve them of the pressure of feeling like they need to stay to ‘be polite.'”
- Let your guests know in advance if other guests will have young children or babies with them. “Seeing little ones when you didn’t expect them (even when you steel yourself for the possibility) can still hit like a gut punch. Advanced trigger warning can help your friend make an early decision as to whether or not they can handle attending in the first place.”
- Show your guest where they can safely keep any meds they may need to take (if they are undergoing treatment) and where they can administer any medications that need privacy (like an injectable med).
#2: A guest is currently undergoing health treatments
One of my best friends, Janel, is currently battling a destructive cancer. Recently our friend, Lindsay, went down to stay with her for a few days and I asked them what advice they would give to a host and other guests if a person undergoing an aggressive health treatment (like chemo or radiation) came to Thanksgiving dinner.
- Be respectful if the friend has no interest in talking about her sickness. Holidays are hard on everyone, so back off if initial inquiry is met with resistance. Remember it isn’t about you. It’s great that you are open and interested, but she may have told her story 10 other times that day and is tired.
- Be aware that your guest may have specific food sensitivities.
- If your guest is very sick or immunosuppressed, do not be insulted if they ask for extra sanitary conditions. One person’s sniffle could equal a hospital visit to your guest.
- Take the opportunity to find out in what way you or others can help your friend during the holidays: kid care, errands, grocery shopping?
- Don’t bring up trials or wonder drugs. Your guest has a doctor. It’s awkward for your guest if this is brought up, so please keep it to yourself. DON’T Use the phrase, “This too shall pass”.
#3: A guest has severe food allergies
I knew my friend Jo would have some great advice about this as she is a mom to a kid with severe food allergies. He has anaphylactic reactions when he consumes milk, egg, peanut, beef, and pork. She has some potentially life-saving advice for Thanksgiving hosts.
- Find out what kinds of foods your guests can eat AND find out what kinds of food they like to eat. (Just because someone can eat a food, it doesn’t mean they like it.)
- Find out what foods could possibly be dangerous to your guest if placed on the table.
- When the guest arrives, let her know immediately which foods are safe for her and which are not. (Using labels will get you a LOT of points with your guest.)
- Make sure the safe foods have their own spoons for serving and a clean place to rest the spoon to avoid cross contamination.
- If other guests are bringing food, let them know there is a guest with food allergies also joining the holiday. Anyone bringing food should be able to tell the host what ingredients are in the dish.
#4: A guest is battling depression
A’Driane Nieves is a mental health advocate, artist, and friend. She has written passionately about her struggles with anxiety, depression, and postpartum depression.
- Holidays and holiday cheer can be triggering for a person living with depression. Not every person who experiences depression will experience it the same. Some depressed guests may not talk much. They may just sit quietly in a corner and observe all the gaiety without actively participating.
- A guest who is quiet does not necessarily need someone to step in and “save them” with conversation.
- Guests dealing with depression may want to know where a quick escape pod is should things become overwhelming. Show them a quiet room for recharging, or let them know where they can get some fresh air.
#5: A guest is recently divorced or separated
Tabatha is one of the most raw and open writers I know. When her marriage started to end, she processed it online through her writing and photography. She had some powerful words of advice to hosts this Thanksgiving. Mostly she says, “I’m still me. I’m just going through a thing. And it means more than I could ever say that I’m not going through it alone, especially at the holidays. If I want to talk about my divorce, I will. But maybe I really just want to spend the time with the people I care about and be grateful to have them in my life for the bad times and the good.” Here are some do’s and don’ts from Tabatha:
- Please don’t ask me how I am. My biggest social anxiety right now is walking into a room full of people who ask all loaded questions. I would love to be allowed to have a holiday space where I could be normal and pretend like nothing is going on.
- Please don’t ask me what I’m going to do once my divorce is final. Please don’t ask me how my kids are handling all the changes and how they will deal with a single parent at home.
- Please don’t pull out a picture of your newly single cousin that might be date worthy.
- Please DO tell me you are glad I came, that we should do it again soon or have a play-date or coffee. Then text me in a couple of days to set that up.
- Please throw me some extra leftovers because I don’t have as much time or energy to cook meals like I once did. Let me know you’re there for me but then let it rest. I promise if and when I need something, I will come to you because you’ve been kind and understanding without prying or being overbearing.
#6: A guest is trying to lose weight or is so over people assuming they have body issues
Weight issues are a touchy subject around the holidays. For a lot of us. As someone who has been plus-sized for years, I can tell you that it is never OK to bring up dieting or weight loss to a guest unless they bring it up first. Even then, allow your guest to guide the conversation. My friend Lisa, who often writes about plus-sized fashion, feels the same way. Weight issues are off the table for public conversation and she has some great tips for hosts.
- Always ask guests if there is anything they are avoiding food-wise. If a guest is on a specific diet or plan, this is the time they will tell the host. Lisa says, “While I can’t make every dish vegetarian/gluten-free/etc., I can do things like set aside a certain amount of the dressing I’m going to make to ensure it has veggie broth and no meat in it (because, hello, southern cooking) and bake it in a smaller dish for them. The only true work it creates is a couple of dirty dishes, which is minor compared to being respectful of the people you’ve asked to come to your home.”
- Lisa feels it is up to guests to let hosts know if they are not drinking. They don’t have to say why (there are so many reasons), but it can help the host run interference or deflect uncomfortable questions.
- NO FOOD PUSHING. If someone is working on weight loss or has body issues, the last thing they want to hear is, “Eat, eat, eat!” Offer normal-sized plates and don’t be hurt if someone doesn’t take a second helping of pie.
#7: A guest is going through hard financial times
Liz Henry wrote a guest post for my site a few years ago about her family’s experience on WIC. When it comes to Thanksgiving, she says the best anyone can do is be welcoming. She stresses that’s more than what you say, it’s body language as generosity and thankfulness. She also suggests all guests avoid discussing politics.
One of the most meaningful Thanksgivings my family ever had happened while we were homeless. One of my friends welcomed us into their home and it meant so much. Here’s what I would suggest to hosts:
- Avoid bringing up work or resumes or interviews. Every day the job hunt consumes, and it’s nice to place the worries aside for a meal. If you have genuine interest, follow up the next day with advice.
- If a guest in this situation offers to bring something, let them. We didn’t have much, but showing up empty handed to a holiday meal would have felt horrible. Being able to bring dinner rolls helped us feel like we were contributing.
- Don’t assume your guest will be able to take home lots of leftovers. Ask.
- If your guest offers to help with dishes or any post-meal cleanup, they genuinely are offering. It’s a way to show our gratitude.
The most important ingredient to a perfect Thanksgiving is your kindness and generosity of spirit. Inviting someone to be your guest for a holiday meal is one of the most lovely gifts you can ever give a friend. Not everyone has a table to go to or a table they feel welcome to join. When you include someone into your day, it makes a difference. Try not to stress too much about perfection. Wonderful food is the gravy, your companionship is the main dish.
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